Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Eye in the Sky

            For as long as there have been movies, there have been war movies filled with heroic everymen who just want to go home safe to their families but cannot, at least until they defeat their unquestionably evil enemies. Gavin Hood’s 2015 movie Eye in the Sky eschews the normal war movie clich├ęs and instead tackles the moral ambiguity of drone warfare. The film begins as Colonel Katharine Powell (Helen Mirren) prepares for a mission six years in the making—the capture of a British national turned terrorist Susan Danford inside a house in Nairobi. When Powell discovers that Danford and the others are preparing two suicide vests, the whole mission changes. The politicians gathered to watch Danford’s capture bicker over rules of engagement, risk assessments, and public relations fallout as they watch the terrorists prepare suicide vests for two young volunteers. The tension ratchets upwards as the terrorists grow closer to leaving for their intended targets and as a young girl sells bread on the street just outside the house. Through this web of escalating circumstances, politicians and lawyers pass the responsibility ever upwards. All of them elected or appointed to make crucial decisions, but unwilling to actually make them.

Helen Mirren as Katharine Powell 

            Eye in the Sky’s superb cast sells the ethical debates—which at times seem straight out of a graduate seminar in philosophy—caused by the use of drone warfare in civilian areas. Mirren shines as Powell. She is tough and sure of her mission, demanding that the bureaucrats above her make a decision and manipulating the circumstances to ensure they accede to her wishes. She is determined to kill her target, even at the cost of the little girl’s life. Mirren’s skill comes in portraying Powell as determined, but not villainous. Her motivations are understandable, relatable, and come from a desire to protect civilian lives. The late Alan Rickman plays Mirren’s superior, a general who oversees her mission in the company of some high ranking British cabinet officials. What begins as a capture mission evolves into a kill one when the suicide vests appear. It is Rickman who must forcefully and continually remind the government officials of the ticking clock—eventually those men are going to put their suicide vests on and use them. Aaron Paul plays a conflicted American drone pilot who refuses to launch a missile at the house until the little girl is given an opportunity to escape from the killing zone. His quiet, but firm resistance forces Powell to risk the life of an asset on the ground to get the girl out of the way.

            The film veers towards but never quite crosses over into farce. There are moments when the lunacy of the entire exercise becomes almost Kubrickian. One British official suggests that they let the suicide bombers leave and complete their mission (killing perhaps hundreds of people) in order to gain a propaganda victory rather than risk killing the little girl. In another moment, the American secretary of state points out that they have 3 of the most wanted terrorists in East Africa preparing two suicide vests and are bickering over legalities. The film, however, shifts back to depicting the emotional cost. After the mission, a devastated Paul and his co-pilot walk out of their little shed only to be reminded by their commanding officer that they’re due back in twelve hours—potentially to do this all over again. Rickman’s general chides one of the officials who condemns them all for potentially killing the girl. He tells her, “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” Whatever the tone of the film, Eye in the Sky raises troubling questions of the ethics of war and the reticence of our own leaders to take responsibility for their own actions.  

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Independence Day Resurgence

            The world wasn’t exactly crying out for a sequel to Independence Day—the 1996 global disaster movie. Sure we all enjoyed it. It was fun. There was Bill (don’t call me Paxton) Pullman delivering that campy speech. There was destruction on a large scale. Will Smith, then in the height of his movie stardom, stole the movie with his wisecracking one liners. Jeff Goldblum brought down an alien civilization using a Mac Powerbook. The film, directed by Roland Emmerich and produced by Dean Delvin, came to define a new generation of summer blockbusters. Emmerich himself has specialized in this disaster porn with diminishing returns with films like Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, and White House Down. Perhaps this was an effort to recapture some lost glory? No matter what the reason for its existence, Independence Day Resurgence fails to replicate the success of its predecessor.

            Resurgence starts out promisingly enough as Emmerich immerses the audience in an Earth twenty years removed from the events of the first film. Here the film tends towards straight science fiction. There’s a moon base with a moody but talented pilot. There’s an African warlord who fought the ground war against the aliens for ten years. There’s President Whitmore (Pullman) battling the psychological demons from his own encounter with the aliens. There’s a unified and militarized Earth that celebrates its wartime heroes and venerates the new generation of soldiers who are eager to fight once again. And in the middle of it is all is Earth Space Defense director David Levinson (Goldblum going full Goldblum) trying to unravel the mystery of a recurring image that appears across the Earth. As long as the movie plays like a sci-fi detective story, Resurgence hums along just nicely. The problems begin when the aliens show up.

            The arrival of the aliens sends the film spiraling into a mishmash of convoluted plotting and too many characters with too little to do. Vivica A. Fox reprises her role from the first movie, having taken a new job as a hospital administrator, only to die saving a pregnant woman. Her death serves little purpose other than to provide motivation to her son, the planet’s best pilot. As if watching the destruction of the entire eastern seaboard wasn’t enough? There’s a bus full of children who somehow wind up in the middle of the film’s climatic battle requiring Levinson to save them. They have no role in the plot other than to artificially raise the stakes—as if the stakes weren’t high enough already. Then, as all action movies have to do now, there’s the obvious play towards the Chinese market. So we have a stern and competent Chinese general in charge of the moon base who dies trying to save his men. Then there’s his niece, one of Earth’s finest pilots, who mourns her uncle and resists the pathetic efforts of an American to hit on her. Not to mention the new American president (Sela Ward) who manages to say some presidential things and then get blown up.

            The plot of film veers directly into setting up an unnecessary sequel. After the 3,000 mile wide spaceship lands over the Atlantic and starts drilling for the Earth’s crust—ostensibly to steal all the resources from the molten core and kill all of mankind—Earth mobilizes its best and brightest, who mostly get killed. Then Levinson comes up with another clever plan triggering another big battle over the Bonneville Salt Flats (this is where the school bus full of children come into play). This plan involves using the arrival of another alien species—one that looks suspiciously like EVE from WALL-E—to lure the alien queen into a trap. After the Earthlings victory, EVE offers the promise of even greater alien technology and the opportunity to take the fight across the galaxy against the alien invaders (naming the aliens would be useful). The beats of the second half of the movie play like a poor imitation of the first movie and something that’s totally derivative. There’s another alien species with even better technology! The humans only have 10 minutes before the aliens puncture the crust! And let’s take the fight to the aliens! The only winner out of the whole film is Will Smith, who famously refused to reprise his role, for the sequel. At least he’s spared the embarrassment of Resurgence.   

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

London Shopping and Touring

            Over the past few weeks, we’ve been taking a close look at London and some of the best spots to visit and eat. In this final post on the English capital, let’s take a look at some shopping, eating, and touring opportunities.

Portobello Market: Located in the Notting Hill neighborhood, the Portobello Road Market attracts tourists and locals alike who come on Saturdays to shop for antiques. The Market began as a fresh food market in the 1800s. By the mid-1950s, the antiques dealers began to set up shop on Portobello Road. In more recent years, thanks to the influx of tourism due to the Hugh Grant-Julia Roberts movie called Notting Hill, cheap t-shirts, lame personalized license plates, and other crappy knick knacks seem to have overwhelmed the market. Undoubtedly a few gems still exist, but they were hard to find amongst the mass produced crap. Look a T-shirt that says “Notting Hill” on it! Near the end of the market we did manage to find a photographer’s stand that sold some quality color and black and white photos of London. The food stands were distributed throughout the market and there was a wide range of street food available. After the long walk along Portobello Road we indulged in some delicious French fries from Poptata’s, the winner of Time Out’s Best French Fries in London in 2015.

Portobello Market 

Borough Market: After visiting Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tate Modern, we ate lunch at Borough Market. The organizers of Borough Market claim that the market has existed in some form since at least 1014 and maybe even longer. By 1754, the market had become such a hub of activity that Parliament abolished it in order to ease up the traffic congestion on the south bank of the Thames. The inability of farmers to sell their food and the need for grocers to buy it, however, forced Parliament to reopen the market shortly thereafter. The Market sits just south of London Bridge underneath a series of railroad lines. Originally the market existed solely for wholesale purposes, where stores bought vegetables and meats in large numbers from farmers. In recent decades, vendors have set up individual stalls to sell to members of the general public. Currently, the market houses street food of all kinds. We saw everything from Indian curries to Caribbean soul food, from desserts and fresh breads to barbecue. It was a wonderful spot to grab a quick and delicious bite to eat away from the crowds of tourists.

Greenwich Market: During our trip out to Greenwich to see the Royal Observatory, we stopped at the Greenwich Market for a little lunch and some shopping. Much smaller than the Portobello Market, Greenwich had a better range of products including handmade scarves and wooden children’s toys. While the items at Greenwich were more expensive than those at the Portobello Market, they were of a much higher quality. The food stalls rivaled those at Borough Market. For lunch, we enjoyed sushi that was hand rolled right in front of our eyes, using the freshest fish available. For dessert, we devoured chocolate filled churros, fried and filled to order. The melted chocolate got all over our hands and made for some slightly embarrassing after-eating clean up, but they were worth every penny. Greenwich was everything we hoped Portobello would be.

The much better Greenwich Market 

Thames River Cruises: In order to get out to Greenwich we took a tour boat that left from Westminster Pier, thinking we should try to see as much of the river as possible. The boat provided gorgeous views of both banks of the Thames as we passed by the London Eye, the Tower of London, London Bridge, Tower Bridge, Shakespeare’s Globe and a host of other sites. The particular boat company we went on had a few downsides, however. Almost immediately after leaving Westminster we docked for 15 minutes at the London Eye (the giant Ferris wheel that offers views of London), meaning we spent a lot of time not cruising on the river. The trip also required another stop at the Tower of London before proceeding to Greenwich. From Westminster to Greenwich we spent about 40 minutes or so of the 1 hour and twenty minute journey waiting at docks. On our way back we got off the boat at the Tower and took the train back rather than going back all the way to Westminster. When taking a river tour, find one with as few stops as possible.

Canal Boats 

Regent’s Canal: Our other boat tour was much more enjoyable and successful. We took a tour of the Regent’s Canal that runs through Central London on Jason’s Canal Boat Trip that left from Little Venice in London and ended at Camden. The Regent’s Canal was built in the early 19th century to facilitate trade between the Grand Junction Canal and the Thames River. The canal sped up the movement of goods across and through London. Shielded by high embankments on either side, the canal cuts through central London offering a natural sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the city. Canal boats line the riverbank where many Londoners live and travel up and down the over 8 mile long canal. A part of the Canal abuts the London Zoo and oftentimes new animals are taken up the Canal to the Zoo rather than through the heart of the city. The Zoo finds the animals adapt to their environments better by taking this quieter route. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

London Cultural Attractions

            Last week we looked some of London’s most famous historical sites. Today we’ll shift our focus to examine some of the city’s cultural landmarks.

Trafalgar Square 

National Gallery: Located in Trafalgar Square under the shadow of Nelson’s Column, the National Gallery plays host to some 2,300 paintings from the mid-13th century to 1900. It is the third most visited museum in England behind the British Museum and the Tate Modern. The Museum has a collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist works from a wide range of artists including Georges Seurat, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Vincent Van Gogh. The Gallery holds Van Gogh’s famed Sunflowers painting (pictured below). The National Gallery also boasts an impressive range of Renaissance and early modern art including Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks and original works by Raphael, Titian, Albrecht Durer, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. The Gallery’s resume is impressive, but on a visit, we’d recommend getting an audio guide, that way you don’t get lost starring at too many Portraits of a Young Man or different versions of the Annunciation of Christ. Too many of those paintings run together and by the time you get to the Impressionists, you just want to get off your feet rather than appreciate one of Van Gogh’s masterpieces.  

Tate Modern:  The Tate Modern picks up where the National Gallery left off with works from approximately 1900 to the present. This museum blends modern and postmodern art with the works of post-impressionists. The Tate Museums—there are four in total—boast a collection of over 70,000 pieces of artwork (only a small number are on display at any given time). Unlike the National Gallery, the Tate Modern also features photography, art installations, and even video exhibitions. The Tate Modern, opened in 2000 at the site of a former power station, hosts a number of works by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Henri Matisse. Its more modern works can be a bit hit or miss. One room contains various sized hand sewn burlap sacks meant to represent eggs. Another contains an artist’s interpretation of a goat—a wagon with a hammer placed on top of it. On the other hand, one artist’s interpretation of a series of cell phone images taken of the deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is striking in their simple use of color.

Exterior of Shakespeare's Globe 

Shakespeare’s Globe: The Globe Theater in its two iterations housed the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the theatrical company that performed the plays of William Shakespeare. The first Globe Theater lasted from 1599-1613 until a cannon shot ignited the thatched roof and burned the building to the ground. The second Globe Theater stood from 1614 through 1644 when it was torn down by Puritans who had banned public theater performances. In 1997, thanks to the work of Sam Wanamaker, an American actor, the newly rebuilt Shakespeare’s Globe opened on the banks of the Thames less than a thousand feet from its original location.  The modern theater was constructed based on historical and archeological evidence of the two previous structures. The open air theater is the only building in London allowed to have a thatched roof (thatched roofs had been banned following the disastrous fire of 1666). It can hold 1,400 spectators, some on historically accurate backless benches while the rest stand in the pit of the theater. The Globe hosts productions of Shakespeare’s plays without the benefit of any modern technology. There is no additional lighting, sound amplification, or even the use of sets. Surrounding the theater is a small museum dedicated to the history of the theater in Shakespeare’s time and the efforts to rebuild the Globe. Some 96% of all of the available tickets for the shows at the theater are sold to the public, the highest such rate in London.

The Stage 
West End Theater: London’s West End is only rivaled by New York City’s Broadway in terms of importance to the theater industry. Collectively, the London’s theater district of about forty different venues is primarily located in the West End of the city (hence the name). These theaters draw in tourists and locals alike by offering the latest plays and musicals as well as long running classics. Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera have been running in the West End since 1985 and 1986 respectively. Currently more recent hits like Wicked and Book of Mormon are in the midst of lengthy West End runs. Cheap tickets are easily available at the London Theatre Ticket Booth in Leicester Square.  On our recent visit, we had the chance to see both Les Miserables and Book of Mormon. Even after thirty years, Les Miserables was an emotionally effective story of the redemption of Jean Valjean and his relentless pursuit by Javert, a determined police inspector. Book of Mormon, on the other hand, was a hilariously vulgar send up of the Mormon Church and religion in general. By blending traditional Broadway forms with its absurd lyrics, the musical pays tribute to the history of musical theater while satirizing it at the same time. If you don’t mind laughing your head off (and at a lot of vulgar subject matter), then see Book of Mormon if you have the chance.